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Monday, July 11, 2022

Let’s end fake fire districts in 2023

New challenges to fake fire districts

By Will Collette

After state Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter ruled that the Bonnet Shores fake fire district violated the state Constitution by basing the right to vote on property ownership.

The RI ACLU reviewed the charters of other fire districts, both real and fake, to see how they determined who can vote in fire district elections.

The Boston Globe reported that the ACLU warned nine districts including several in our area, that they too could face a challenge over the constitutionality of their voting rules.

According to the Boston Globe:

“The Quonochontaug Central Beach Fire District’s clerk, Maud Bailey, said in an email that the district does allow non-property owners who reside in the district to vote — although property owners within the district get two votes to submit on behalf of their lot. That shoreline fire district, in Charlestown, does not have its own fire department, but it does issue beach passes, maintain a boat launch, and prohibit picnics on the beach.”

The Indian Lake Shores Fire District in South Kingstown and the Weekapaug Fire District in Westerly did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.

Several fire districts said they either planned to or already had changed their voting practices to conform to the Constitution but not their charters.

ACLU volunteer lawyer Jamie Rhodes said that was the wrong answer: “If they know part of their charter is unconstitutional, they should go and change it.”

The Globe identified several more fire districts that aren’t actually fire districts beyond those uncovered by The Public’s Radio South County Bureau chief Alex Nunes in his Edward R. Murrow-award winning series on fake fire districts. See links below.

These are districts that act more like home owner associations for gated seaside communities or as public utilities, such as North Tiverton which acts as the town’s municipal water utility.

Phony fire districts like Quonnie and Shady Harbor also can own a lot of prime real estate and pay little or no municipal tax. They can provide wealthy residents with valuable income tax deductions for membership to such amenities as tennis courts, clubs, private beaches, swimming pools, boat launches and moorings, trash pick-up and snow plowing. But not fire protection.

I’ve researched and reported in this issue in Progressive Charlestown for several years. Now there have been multiple recent media exposés (see below). It is time for state legislation that requires any association that the benefits of being a fire district to devote a substantial part of its assets to fighting fires.

These fake fire districts are an insult to real firefighters and real fire districts.

They restrict beach access to their members only. They rob municipalities of property taxes as well as giving their members a way to cheat on federal and state income taxes.

The 2022 General Assembly session is over and we now move into election season. I’d like to see some of the candidates make the pledge to end the travesty of fake fire districts.

To learn more about fake fire districts and how they affect you through issues like shoreline access and taxes, check out the following links, beginning with the Edward R. Murrow Award winning articles by Alex Nunes, chief of the South County Bureau of the Public's Radio: The Boston Globe and Providence Journal have also covered this issue